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Cross of Iron (1977)
A Different Kind of War Film
Films concerning the Second World War face a problem that is somewhat unique to their subject matter. In almost any other war that is popularly represented in films it can be difficult to draw the line between "good guy" and "bad guy". Certainly a film made in one of the belligerent countries has a tendency to simply portray their own countrymen as heroes and those of opposing nations as villains.
The Second World War does not have such wavy distinctions however. The war clearly pitted the allied nations, of which most were free democratic countries with one partner, the Soviet Union, a notable exception which could be described as the lesser of two evils at best, against the most brutal expansionist powers since the Roman Empire. This makes it quite easy for a filmmaker to vilify the Germans, Japanese, and Italians, but what of a film that features them as the main characters? What of a film that paints some of them in a heroic light nonetheless? Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron handles this issue quite well. In order to reconcile the heroism of the average soldier with the brutality of the government they serve the main cast of characters is a rag-tag group of soldiers that have found themselves in this war and just wish to do their job and come out alive, politics be damned. To heighten this, the main conflict in the story is not against the Soviet enemy, but against a politically motivated and glory obsessed party line Prussian aristocrat. This method of dealing with "The Nazi Problem" is really quite common in films from Germany as well as from other nations and does depend a bit on a popularized German stereotype, but it is effective in separating the actions of the common soldier from that of the regime, though one wonders how different this film would be if the enemy had been the Americans or British, rather than the admittedly inhumane Soviets.
These distinctions aside the film is a fantastic testament to the ability of the independent and human spirit to endure the ravages of most brutal war and is certainly worth a watching for anyone interested in war films or cinema in general.
Cidade de Deus (2002)
Wonderful Story, Fantastic Style
When listing the world's great film industries it is inevitable that one will mention the United States, India, France, perhaps even Germany and Italy. One nation that is not often mentioned is Brazil, a shame considering films such as City of God. This story of aging and maturing, both of Rocket, the main character, and of the slum known as the City of God itself, is a true masterwork of film making.
City of God is without a doubt a thoroughly modern film in almost all aspects, but it also builds on a tradition much older than itself. The film was shot in an actual Rio de Janeiro slum using non-professional actors, some of whom actually grew up in the City of God itself. These characteristics are very reminiscent of the Italian Neo-Realist movement of the post war period who also used amateur actors and real locations to convey a strong sense of realism and truth through their films. In a way mirroring theirs City of God feels incredibly real, looks incredibly real, and thusly better conveys the story that it is trying to tell. This particular style is very well suited to the content of this film, as it is based on the true story of a drug war in the actual City of God slum, and so conveys an appropriate sense of realism.
The editing of City of God is of particular interest. It is jumpy, fast-paced, and travels rapidly between narrative threads. This technique achieves two ends. Firstly is adds a sense of urgency and movement to the film, perhaps playing up the aspect of a "life flashing before your eyes" flashback that the majority of the film seems to be composed of. The second affect of the techniques employed, along with the use of narration and titles, is to give the film the feeling of being told orally, complete with tangential references to things that will come later, and references to that which has come before.
Overall City of God is a great film that dives into a story of poverty, drugs, and desperation and never looks back.
Tmavomodrý svet (2001)
An interesting story of soldiers in exile.
It seems that no matter how many films are made on the subject, there is no shortage of stories that emerge from the Second World War. It stands to reason that a conflict on such a scale as global warfare would capture the imagination of filmmakers everywhere and provide them with ample material on which to base a story. Heading in a different direction than most mainstream movies about the war is Dark Blue World, a film that does not deal with the traditional major battles of the war, does not tell the story of many of its major figures, and does not even focus on soldiers of any of the major allied or axis powers. Dark Blue World instead ventures into the world of refugee soldiers fighting in exile for their occupied nations.
The film does a marvelous job of portraying the challenges faced by Czech pilots flying under the British Royal Air Force, expressing the frustration that they felt both at the language barrier between them and the other fliers, but also at being restrained from achieving vengeance against the Germans until being re-trained.
Dark Blue World also works quite well outside the arena of the war film as being a story about human relationships. A love triangle develops between the two main characters and an English woman that complicates the teacher-mentor relationship of the two exiled soldiers. This relationship is extremely well acted throughout, developing into almost a father and son relationship at many points.
The aerial combat in the film is among some of the best and is also very interesting in exploring the cultural challenges mentioned above as the men struggle to fly their machines, fight the enemy, and relay commands and replies in an unfamiliar language. The tension and struggle of these scenes continues the tension between the men on the ground, just as the tension on the ground continues that felt in the air.
This may not be a film for everyone. The hardcore war film buff may find its exploration of relationships a bit off-putting, but it is on the whole an excellent film regardless of the bellicose element or not.
Der Untergang (2004)
How to deal with a monster
One of the great challenges that an actor can face is in the portrayal of an absolute and uncompromising evil. Such is the challenge faced by many of the actors in Downfall, depicting the final days of the "Hitler Bunker" and necessitating portrayals of some of the worst criminals in history, including Heinrich Himmler, Albert Speer, Joseph Goebbels, and of course the arch-devil of National Socialism himself, Adolph Hitler.
And that is precisely what separates this movie from any other on the topic, the utterly amazing portrayal of the world's most brutal of dictators by Bruno Ganz. Ganz's performance takes on depths that very few could imagine, let alone portray, in the character of Hitler. His outlandish and sometimes childishly inappropriate reactions to the crumbling of his empire reveal the deep neurosis suffered by Hitler, while other moments in the film reveal sides of Hitler that many do not know of, such as his vegetarianism and love for animals. Another particularly interesting aspect of Ganz's performance is the open but never mentioned portrayal of Hitler as suffering from Parkinson's disease, a widely supported theory on Hitler's physical appearance and mannerisms in the late stages of the war.
The deeper issues and consequences of many Nazi practices are only mentioned peripherally in the film, which instead focuses on the personal and psychological effects of the dissolution of the Nazi state on both residents of the bunker and of Berlin above. Some of the film's finest scenes deal with the Volkssturm militias of young boys and old men who were hastily armed and organized as a last ditch defense against the Soviets. In dealing with this a very interesting historical moment is portrayed in the film. The last appearance of Hitler on film before his death was at a small ceremony outside of the entrance to the bunker where he gave medals to several young men that had destroyed a soviet tank, and this moment is shown fantastically in the movie.
This film is definitely recommendable to anyone who is interested in the Second World War or even history in general and is sure to stand the test of time as the definitive portrayal of Adolf Hitler.
Overrated, but still good.
Vertigo is highly touted as one of the greatest works of renowned filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, and though it is a great film with many merits, there are elements of it which diminish its luster a bit.
The rising action of the film is very well constructed, with the mystery of Madeline's behavior revealing itself and then uncoiling in a slow and deliberate way that builds the suspense that one suspects from Hitchcock. The story and intrigue layer and build until the fateful scene in the mission stairwell. The moment of Madeline's "suicide" feels very much like the climax of the film, and indeed the film seems about to end when Scottie is placed in a mental care facility (And the film could well have ended there and been quite good.), but it does not. Instead a sort of second story arc begins with Scottie released from the hospital and running across Judy at Ernie's. This discovery leads to a series of "make over" scenes in which Scottie attempts to transform Judy back into Madeline. Scotties motivation in these scenes can be a bit hard to place, making this section of the film difficult to follow for some, and can be quite discouraging to less diligent viewers. Those who do have the fortitude or curiosity to endure are treated to a wonderful twist ending that firmly snaps the section of film in question into perspective.
The film deals rather unabashedly with the issue of obsession. The main characters in the film are either possessed of or develop strong obsessions that ultimately lead to their undoing: Gavin's desire to kill his wife, Scottie's obsession over Madeline, and, even though it is later revealed to be non- genuine, Madeline's obsession with Carlotta Valdes.
A visual aspect of Vertigo that bears mentioning, aside from the now famous "trombone" shot, is the use of color in the film to define and separate scenes from one another. Various color palates are used in different locations such as the yellows of Midge's apartment, the red of Ernie's, or the whites of the various mission houses.
Overall, a great film worth viewing, but perhaps a bit overrated.
A surprisingly deep film.
Toys is a movie easily overlooked and dismissed as childish and nonsensical. Nothing could be further from the truth though, as it is a movie of surprising depth and style.
The first point that must be covered is the performance given by Robin Williams as Leslie Zevo. Although it is fraught with his almost trademark wackiness there is an underlying current of a man who is on the edge of coming into his own. The layers of the character he plays are subtly shown, as Leslie is a man who is strong, but unsure of his strength and covers that insecurity with comedy and whimsy.
The film is visually striking, a real art department tour de force, and is very much removed from any hint of the past at first glance. Looking deeper into the visuals however reveals the films deeper content of classic surrealist motifs, especially that of dismembered body parts and other parts separated from the whole. Partially assembled dolls, the parts of which come out of machines that are shaped as further separated body parts, are shown throughout. Alsatia lives in rooms within rooms that seem separated from the wholeness of houses, and indeed lives in a paper fold-out doll house herself, the reasons for which become quite apparent by the films end.
This aesthetic choice, combined with the toys vs. weapons juxtaposition makes the films textual purpose clear. Toys is a surrealist reaction to the end of the Cold War, in the very same vein as the original surrealists reactions to the end of the First World War. The film even makes several direct references to one of the surrealist masters, Rene Magrite, especially in the music video sequence. This places Toys in a very deep anti-war tradition, one that is expressed very openly in the entire premise of a General taking control of a toy company and turning it to military purpose.
Any who would dismiss this film as merely childish surely owe it to themselves to take another look at this surrealist masterpiece and lose themselves in the quirky visuals and creative world that is placed on screen.
A film of Hell
Describing Stalingrad as a war film may be a bit inaccurate. Sure it centers on the longest and bloodiest battle in world history, in the most expansive theater of the most costly war in terms of lives, money, and matériel that has ever occurred. Yes it contains action scenes depicting bitter battles and terrible destruction. The visceral storytelling and harsh images though make it something more than a war film, even more than an anti-war film. Stalingrad is instead a film about absolute and undeniable hell.
The film is fraught with visual descriptions of the worst kind of war, one that is intensely personal and close, where days are spent in taking one city block, only to have it re-taken in a surprise assault. The early form of modern urban warfare that the Germans came to call Rattenkrieg (Rat Warfare) is depicted in brutal and uncompromising terms. The characters war in sewer tunnels, rail yards, and from building to building in the hellish bomb-scape of ruined Stalingrad, only to be defeated by the unforgiving Russian winter.
The film deals with the issue of Nazism and the vilification of Germans in that period in the way that many other films from both Germany and the rest of the world do. Its characters are a group of soldiers swept along by the winds of war and simply attempting to make it out with themselves and as many of their comrades as possible alive. The characters do not fight the Soviets out of any ideological hatred between National Socialism and Soviet Communism, not for any grand dream of Grossdeutschland or racial superiority. They fight only because if they do not the enemy will kill them, and if the enemy does not then their own officers certainly will for refusing to fight. This portrayal adds another layer to the suffocating envelope of trapped hopelessness that pervades the film.
A sort of ground based companion to Das Boot, Stalingrad frames the epic struggle of World War Two in a personal light and from the unexpected perspective of the ordinary German soldier as a sort of hero made tragic by circumstance and a brutal government that would pervert his sacrifice.
From Hell It Came (1957)
There is in films a strange phenomenon. Every so often everything about a film will go so wrong, and said film will turn out so very badly that it becomes a joy to watch. From Hell it Came is such a film, and perhaps the quintessential example of this reverse appreciation.
From Hell it Came reigns as royalty in the court of unintentional hilarity for a number of reasons, a silly plot, horrible acting, and of course one of the worst movie monsters of all time.
The plot itself is somewhat forgivable, though no less laughable, when viewed in context. This film is an example of the "Drive in B Movie" and as such cannot really be considered high art in the first place, but even this dubious distinction fails to make up for the laughable premise and hackneyed message about the dangers of nuclear radiation.
The monster of the film, a shambling topiary nightmare known as "The Tabanga", ranks among the least frightening and most unintentionally comical of all film villains. The sheer slowness of his shuffling gait really calls into question the habit that all of the characters in the film have of running away from it as if a brisk, or even not so brisk, walk would be just as effective. In all actuality, one could probably crawl away from this monster on their hands and knees and live to tell the tale, prompting questions of how the monster gets around the island as quickly as it seems to, and how it could be perceived as much of a threat at all.
This seemingly misplaced sense of terror and urgency leads nicely into a discussion of the acting in the film, which is nowhere to be seen. The lines are delivered with a cardboard disinterest that one would expect from a movie of this caliber.
Some people may not see any value in the unintentionally funny, so bad that its good sort of film, still others may rail against it as a debasement of the art form, but for those who have a more open sense of humor or are already fans of this sort of comedy, From Hell it Came is not to be missed.
Große Freiheit Nr. 7 (1944)
Another fine Kautner film.
In Great Freedom no. 7 we are once again faced with an excellent piece of film work by the mid-century German master, Helmut Kautner. The story, as is common with his films, focuses on a love triangle and also uses sailors and their transitory way of life as a complication to this triangular arrangement as he does in Under the Bridges. He also reprises the theme of musicianship which he uses for characters in most of his films, from the composers in In Those Days and Romance in a Minor Key.
As usual for Kautner, the film employs a more mobile and freewheeling camera. Zooms and pans are used to convey shifts in relationships, for example when Gisa is talking to her mother just before leaving the farm.
Of particular note in this film is the dream sequence experienced by Hannes. Through this sequence Kautner explores the possibilities of manipulating colors, pushing the boundaries of the new technology. His use of form in this sequence is also worthy of discussion. The slanting angles and semi-realistic sets that he uses, especially when Hannes and Willem are fighting on the ship, are reminiscent of the German Impressionist films of three decades before. This application of an earlier film style is particularly well suited to the content of those scenes, as German expressionism was an attempt to externalize onto the environment the internal attitudes of the characters its modes and tropes lend themselves quite well to hallucinations and dream sequences.
In this film Kautner once again presents a sort of timeless, a political Germany. Even though the film was produced under the grip of one of the most brutal regimes in history, and was a thorn in the side of Joseph Goebbels, there are no traces of the political climate of the day, let alone anything resembling propaganda. The characters exist in a Germany that is modern and recognizable, but is clearly not the Germany that the audience knows. This feature of Kautner's films during the war years seems to have been an attempt to remind people of their essential humanity, even among the horrors of war and the domination of a brutal government.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
A fantastic invocation of the 18th century.
Barry Lyndon may be one of the least popular of all of Stanley Kubrick's films, but it is by no means deserving of this reputation. This historical epic explores an era in Europe that is often overshadowed in America by the events of the so called French and Indian War (which was in all actuality an extension of the seven years war that is portrayed in the film) and the subsequent American Revolution. Although it follows the life of one man it touches on many issues that were highly relevant in those days, especially the very Candide- like way that Barry finds himself in a military career. Overall the film goes a great distance to evoke the feel of the late 18th century and archives this end spectacularly.
The term "Costume Epic" finds in this film perhaps its most astounding fulfillment. Indeed, one of Barry Lyndon's most notable features is the extensive and beautiful costuming. Not only are the styles and make-up of the period represented, but there is a lovely treatment of the military uniforms and equipment used during the Seven Years War.
The stunning cinematography, and of course the famously candlelit scenes, deserve mention. The locations used in the film are stunning to say the least, with broad country vistas and rich noble villas presented in a style reminiscent of painters of the 18th and 19th centuries. The candlelit scenes are both technically and visually impressive, and go a long way towards capturing the feel of the period.
The story itself oftentimes seems secondary to the visual splendor of the film, but is of good quality in and of itself. It is not tremendously innovative, as many other Kubrick films are, in terms of content, but the story is told well. Narration is put to excellent effect, giving the whole film the book-like feel that can be found quite often in Kubrick's films.
Overall, though it is easy to overlook as a part of his career, Barry Lyndon deserves a place among the most notable of Kubrick's achievements, right along with films like A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket, if only for its invocation of its temporal setting alone.
Unter den Brücken (1946)
Under the Bridges is another fantastic film from German director Helmut Kautner. The plot of the film centers on a barge on the waterways of Germany in some unidentified time and the relationship between the two owners of the boat. This relationship becomes strained, and develops into a classic love triangle, when a woman comes on board and stays with them for a short time. As is usual of Kautner's films the characters are highly sympathetic and their relationships very realistic and well thought out. Almost anyone can identify with at least one of these archetypal main characters, whether it is the "Damsel in Distress" Anna, the "Loner with a Heart of Gold" Hendrick, or the "Nice Guy" Willy.
The most interesting factor in this film though is one that happens off screen. Filmed in 1945, and often interrupted by overhead allied bombers, this was one of the final films to pass the censors of the Third Reich in March 1945, the month before the suicide of Adolf Hitler and the soon following German surrender. Despite the pervasiveness of the looming military and political disaster that was apparent in Germany at the time the present is entirely absent from the film. The plot takes place in some sort of time out of time that is familiar and identifiable as some time in 20th century Germany, but this is only a vague placement. The timeless quality so embraced is indicative of Kautner's desire to remain apolitical during the war and to remain simply a filmmaker. The blissful ignorance of the film's contemporary political reality gives the film a very escapist quality, a very probable goal of Kautner's.
This film taken in its historical context has a very important message. It seems to largely be saying that no matter what happens on the world stage we are all still human and that no matter what befalls us we continue to survive, thrive, live, and love. This attitude towards human life is something that gives Kautner's films their human quality; that certain feeling that comes through them which seems to say "Despite all that happens, we must maintain hope."
In jenen Tagen (1947)
A Historical curiosity.
Produced shortly after the Second World War in Germany, In Those Days is a film about the lives of ordinary people in Germany during the lead up to and duration of the war. The story begins with two mechanics disassembling a car after the war, and continues when the car itself begins to narrate the events of its life, meaning that most of the film is told in flashback. This device, of an object narrating its own past, is an interesting one at best. While it does allow for a quite broad and neutral perspective toward history, it is a bit too strange to really convey the plot without distracting from it. The car in question is also far too overtly personified to act in the role of a reliable, neutral narrator, instead it seems to have a personality and human point of view. The narration leads into a series of flashbacks telling the story of successive owners of the car. A problematic aspect of this device is that the car changes owners in successive stories with little to no explanation about the change of ownership. Taking this with the fact that a few of the actors in the early sections of the movie look somewhat similar to one another and it leads to a very confusing early section of the movie. More than once it is quite possible to assume that one character is another from a previous vignette, only to realize that the character is merely portrayed by a similar looking actor. Eventually you begin to assume that characters appear in only one story, and just as this fact has made itself comfortable
a character from an earlier story makes an appearance in a later one. The disconnected nature of the stories causes the film to read more as a series of vignettes, with the car as a loose unifying theme, than as a solid narrative. Unfortunately the stories vary extremely in their ability to entertain, or even hold interest. One story will be quite interesting and well paced, while the next will be slow, ill-paced, and quite frankly boring. One of the few areas in which this film does excel is in portraying the slow slippery slope of the Nazi rise to power. Each story moves its characters further into the restrictive policies of the Third Reich. At first it is simply a man fleeing the country, then a composer whose music has been banned, a Jewish woman whose store is destroyed.
All in all this film seems to be best considered a curiosity, a so-so movie centered on an interesting, though poorly executed, plot vehicle. An interesting viewing, but best left for the curious and historically interested.
Das Boot (1981)
Following an inexperienced German U-boat crew and their veteran commander during a tour of duty in the North Atlantic, Das Boot is a remarkable film about both submarine warfare and the Second World War. It does an unparalleled job of capturing the closeness of warfare under water, cramping both the actors and the camera into spaces that induce claustrophobia. This closeness does an excellent job of heightening the tension, which is a difficult thing to maintain in a movie of this nature.
Indeed the majority of the movie is concerned with the anxious waiting that the crew undergoes as they stalk the ocean for their prey. The day in and day out of waiting for the order to strike occupies a great deal of the film and though this might have been tedious in a lesser film, it is well handled through a combination of great acting and good writing. Through the pen of the naval journalist that accompanies the crew and through the visual description of the day to day life aboard the submarine the audience cannot help but join the crew in hoping for that final release of tension that comes with action.
Action does find the crew, taking them from victory to defeat quite rapidly. One of the most masterful sections of the film though comes when the boat becomes stuck on the bottom of the straits of Gibraltar. These scenes drip with the feelings of heavy, moist, over recycled air, and are shot through with the feeling of a desperately calm urgency, with so many of the boat's systems to repair and so little that most of the men can do to save themselves. What is captured could be described as a situation of great horror, undeniably trapped and beyond all hope of escape.
The film has an extremely powerful ending, with triumph turned tragedy in a brief, crowded moment. The joy of a return home is transformed into the sorrow of death in a statement to the ephemeral nature of victory, one that seems to be shot through the film.
The film seems to send a message about a war without politics, that while the reasons for a war may be intensely political, its execution is in the end a personal one. The film is intensely fair in its portrayal of German sailors, showing that not every German fighting man in the time was a Nazi. Even the ideological young lieutenant is portrayed as being more Naïve than anything else, avoiding the cliché of a ravening, two-dimensional Nazi, or even a world-blind fanatic.
Das Boot may be one of the finest war films ever made. It captures the feeling of its subject admirably, the claustrophobia and waiting of submarine warfare, the mixed joys of victory and defeat, and a sympathetic view towards all sides, something that can be difficult to attain in war films. A great film in general, with a powerful message, good cinematography, and fantastic acting.